In this article, I discuss skills to enhance performance in sport by getting in the zone and how to perform well when you are not in the zone.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

Top performances in sport and other endeavours are associated with being ‘in the zone’. Being in the zone, also known as achieving the state of ‘flow’, is defined by being completely absorbed in the present moment as well as in the movements and actions needed to perform at your best. It is a state of relaxation and optimal concentration in which the athlete is not preoccupied with worries about the result or other matters and is able to focus in the midst of distractions in the setting in which they are performing.

Because top performance is associated with being in the zone, athletes strive to learn and practice psychological skills to help them achieve this state. In this article, I will discuss some of these skills. In addition, because there will be days and circumstances when you may not be in the zone despite the use of these skills, I will discuss how you can still perform at a top level when you are not in the zone.

Skills to facilitate being in the zone

There are several skills athletes can use which increase the likelihood of their being in the zone. These include:

(1) Physical relaxation skills—Being able to relax your body will put you in a physical state which is conducive to being in the zone. Controlled breathing is one such skill which can be practiced to improve proficiency in becoming relaxed.

(2) Cognitive skills—These skills entail identifying and changing negative thoughts which can interfere with your getting into the zone. The thought record is a technique from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which will help you catch, check and change these ‘hot thoughts’ which undermine your ability to get into the zone.


(3) Focusing on process goals before and during your event—These goals refer to actions and events which you can control and which are conducive to achieving a good performance. Because they are within your control, focusing on process goals helps you to relax and achieve a positive mindset which is favourable to your getting into the zone. In contrast, thinking about outcome goals-–results which are outside your direct control—is not advised because it adds tension due to worrying about the results and their implications. This will undermine your ability to get into the zone.

(4) Using the PR plan to build confidence that you can overcome adversity—You are more likely to get in the zone if, leading up to and during the event, you have confidence that you can successfully deal with adversity you may face while performing. The PR plan, created by psychologist Dr. Christine Padesky, is a skill to help you build this confidence with its three steps. They include: Predict specific adversity you may face during the event; Prepare strategies you can use to deal with each kind of adversity if it occurs; and Practice through mental rehearsal or role-playing responding to each kind of adversity with the strategies you have identified.

How to perform well when you are not in the zone

Although use of the skills I discussed will make it more likely you will be in the zone while performing, you cannot guarantee you will achieve this state. This may occur if you are not ‘on’ that day. You may also encounter some adversity leading up to or during the event which prevents you from getting into the zone or takes you out of it.

In these cases, it is necessary to have a plan in place which gives you confidence that you can perform well even when you are not in the zone. This entails ‘getting the job done’ when you are not in the zone. The best athletes typically cite some great performances in which they were in the zone but also take pride in having performed well even they did not have their best stuff or were not in the zone. In the previous section, the PR plan was discussed as a skill to facilitate getting into the zone. In this instance, it can help you prepare and practice strategies you can use if you find yourself not in the zone.

For example, iconic swimmer Michael Phelps practiced performing in adverse conditions which took him out of the zone. This practice performing while not in the zone paid off big time for Mr. Phelps. In one of his record-breaking eight gold medal swims at the 2008 summer Olympics (the 200 meter butterfly), he had to swim much of the race blind as water flooded his goggles—adversity which took him out of the zone. Because he had practiced performing well in this out of zone situation, he was ready for it and performed well enough to win the race and the gold medal in world record time.

Interestingly, having confidence that you can perform well even if you are not in the zone is conducive to getting into the zone. The reason is that you do not feel pressure to achieve the state of flow. You are happy if it happens but are not worried if it does not happen.

You may find it helpful to receive some guidance in implementing these skills by meeting with a psychologist who specializes in CBT. I help my clients in sports psychology counselling learn and practice these and other skills in my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist.

May you use skills to help you get in the zone and to perform well when you are not in the zone,

-Dr. Pat